Teaching youth that the brain is not immutably fixed and that people can change has significant impacts on preventing depressive symptoms from arising, according to research published in Clinical Psychological Science.
Knowing that depression often arises during adolescence, psychologists from Emory University and the University of Texas started from the premise that, “If the seed of depression is the belief that negative events cannot improve, then one way to prevent depressive symptoms from growing might be to teach the idea that people can change.”
The researchers performed a double-blind, active-placebo-controlled experiment with 599 adolescents, in which only some were taught an “incremental theory of personality.” These participants learned that “if you are excluded or victimized, it is not due to a fixed, personal deficiency on your part” and that “people who exclude or victimize you are not fixed, bad people but, instead, have complicated motivations that are subject to change.”
These participants also read a neuroscience article showing that feelings, behaviors and neural pathways in the brain can be changed. “This was done to provide adolescents with a scientific basis for believing in the potential for change (rather than telling adolescents the platitude that ‘people can change’),” explained the researchers.
The control group received similar information, but only in reference to improving athletic ability, not psychological and personality changes.
In a follow-up analysis at the end of the school year, compared to the control group, the young people who’d participated in the one-time intervention in September showed a reduction in the prevalence of clinical levels of depressive symptoms by 40%.
The researchers cautioned that the intervention did not reduce instances or severity of clinically diagnosed depressions; rather, it reduced the overall prevalence of depressive symptoms arising in non-depressed youth. They concluded that, “(I)t is encouraging that the present theoretically informed strategy of intervening to teach an incremental theory of personality appears to have made some headway on a seemingly intractable issue — universal prevention for depressive symptoms during adolescence.”
Preventing Symptoms of Depression by Teaching Adolescents That People Can Change: Effects of a Brief Incremental Theory of Personality Intervention at 9-Month Follow-Up (Miu, Adriana Sum and Yeager, David Scott. Clinical Psychological Science. Published online before print September 15, 2014. doi: 10.1177/2167702614548317)